LIFE IS WHAT HAPPENS TO YOU WHILE YOU’RE BUSY MAKING OTHER PLANS.
by Brianna Ashby
I sat on the toilet for at least ten minutes, crossing and uncrossing my eyes, trying to make sure that the faint pink line that had appeared in the window wasn’t a figment of my imagination, or an optical illusion, or some strange shard of refracted pinkness that was magically hovering just over that particular spot. I put the stick on the edge of the tub and watched as the line grew darker and more definite and my heartbeat grew louder and more deafening and I think I said something like, Holy Shit. I left the urine soaked harbinger of change where it lay and walked into the kitchen on legs that felt like petrified wood, and even though the look on my face very clearly said it all, I had to force the words out so I could begin to believe them. After a few minutes of Are you sure? I’m sure. How sure? Four tests sure. Holy Shit, the shock began to soften. We walked the fifteen paces from the stove to the couch hand in hand, and sat, our fingers intertwined and resting atop my unsuspecting belly, the air around us imperceptibly vibrating like a cloud of hummingbirds.
We’re having a baby.
By nature I am a worrier, a perfectionist, and a hypothetical soothsayer; a mild neurotic who thinks she can ordain anything that could possibly happen at any time in the future. (I also find planning ahead tremendously advantageous, which coupled with the aforementioned traits, makes me a real tour de force among obsessives.) So, naturally, the second I saw the fuzzy pink apparition of a line start to appear on my fourth home pregnancy test, my mind took off in all kinds of directions. Having children lends itself quite freely to lying awake at night sick over the pitiful state of the world, the oppressive cost of higher education, and whether or not the paint in your window sashes has been tested for lead, but these superficial worries are nothing compared to the deep intestine-wringing fantods that accompany one particular late night thought:
Am I a good parent?
Shouldering the responsibility of growing and raising a well-adjusted child with all ten fingers and ten toes is staggering, and even the smallest hiccup in the process can feel like the most epic failure. Parents tend to take everything personally, from the mundane to the earth shattering. A toddler’s distaste for spinach or a teenager’s rebellion, those things are the stuff of sitcoms and laundry detergent commercials, and yet, they still resonate as failures, no matter how hilariously insignificant they may be. Any imperfections in our children tend to magnify our own, and so it becomes that, in the pursuit of the very best life for our kids, we set lofty goals and hold to unrealistic expectations that the universe has not only signed off on our plans, but that it’s also going to help us along. And if you’ve ever had any dealings with the universe, you know that this is just not the case.
Watching the trials and tribulations of the Buckman family, as they unfold in Parenthood, is an exercise in humility for those of us trying to raise our kids so that they don’t become serial killers—but it’s not so child-centric a film that it becomes irrelevant to everyone else. We all have people in our lives whose function (or dysfunction) have helped mold us into the human beings that we are, whose both obvious and poorly disguised neuroses become fodder for ribald holiday jesting and future sessions with our therapists. The Buckman children are no different, all products of their upbringing, the sons and daughters of a hard-drinking abrasive father (Jason Robards) and a quiet mostly subservient mother (Eileen Ryan).
Gil (Steve Martin) is an obsessive perfectionist so hell bent on not repeating the same mistakes his father made with him that he would go to nearly any lengths to be seen as a hero to his children, often to the detriment of his own personal and professional aspirations. Helen (Dianne Wiest) is an embittered divorcée whose well of distrust toward men runs deep; her transparent unhappiness and bitter resentment has driven her own son into virtual silence and her daughter intto blatant rebellion. Susan (Harley Kozak) was something of a free-wheeling wild child until she settled down with Nathan (Rick Moranis), whose fastidiousness and controlling nature seemed like the right answer for her aimlessness. At first, she felt grounded, but now she just feels stifled. Larry (Tom Hulce) is your run-of-the-mill no-goodnik. The long haired, leather-clad black sheep baby of the family, Larry shows up after a ten year absence with a chip on his shoulder, as well as a serious gambling problem and an illegitimate son. The one thing that all the adult Buckman children have in common is a wish to do right by their parents, and to do right as parents, both of which are a struggle, if largely against themselves.
When Gil and his wife Karen are faced with the reality that their eldest son is struggling with emotional problems that will effectually bar him from “normal” public school, their immediate reaction is complete denial. People tend to react poorly to bad news, and people who depend on a tenuous façade of perfection to hold it together naturally pretend that whatever they’ve just heard is somehow a terrible mistake. It is infinitely easier to live in a fantasy world than admit that your reality is flawed, so we shift the blame (for lack of a better term) to avoid shouldering any responsibility for what went wrong.
Meanwhile, as Gil is over-zealously coaching Little League and throwing the full weight of his desperation into positive affirmations, Susan is watching with increasing dismay as Nathan drills their adorable chubby-cheeked three-year-old daughter with flashcards to prepare her for the SATs. Nathan’s rather terrifying hyper-involved parenting has made their child into a kind of tiny robot—a toddler who has no idea why a child her age would twirl around and around in circles until they fell down—and his unrelenting pursuit of a tangential Nobel Prize win has left Susan out in the cold. Still, their children don’t have problems. They don’t have problems. Nope. Other people have problems.
Helen has problems.
From the outside, it would appear that Helen, still reeling from the split with her husband, has her hands full with two unruly and undisciplined children that couldn’t give two shits about anything their mother has to say. The other Buckmans take pity on Helen and her kids, seeing them as casualties of our ruthless modern times, but secretly, I’m sure they’re all quite relieved that this textbook case of familial dysfunction exists, if only to divert attention from their own equally dubious issues.
Garry (Joaquin Phoenix, known as “Leaf Phoenix” back in 1989) is frightfully introverted, sullen, secretive, and unresponsive, having retreated inward since his father’s unceremonious abandonment, and Julie (Martha Plimpton) is torturing her mother with standard teenage fare: yelling, slamming doors, acting out, and dating boys that Helen doesn’t approve of, especially “that Tod” (Keanu Reeves). To spite her mother, Julie runs off with Tod, proclaiming that they’re in love! she needs him!, and all of the motherly reproaches in the world couldn’t tear them apart. Tod is a breath of fresh air in what becomes a pretty depressing domestic clusterfuck. Although he’s not terribly bright, he is charming, adorable, and wholly uncomplicated. Until he and Julie end up husband and wife, that is.
Bruised, but not crippled, by the news that her baby girl has married “that Tod,” Helen digs in her heels and allows the newlyweds to live under her roof, and slowly begins to allow Tod into her life. Goofy, approachable, and most importantly, male, Tod is the only person able to penetrate Garry’s defenses, having himself come from a place where he learned early on that “they’ll let any asshole be a father.” Seeing Tod’s ease in dealing with her children, and the ease with which he found himself a place in her family, Helen stops trying so hard to force herself into Gary and Julie’s lives, and realizes that sometimes, just being there is enough.
It’s easy to get sucked into a sort of vortex after a traumatic event, or an extended run of feeling impotent, or stagnant, or unappreciated. And it’s safe to say that the Buckmans are all swirling around right in the very middle of it, totally unable to see a way out. Tod’s introduction into the whole mess provides some desperately needed objectivity, and a shot of hope that catalyzes a series of crucial changes in Helen, and Gary and Julie, and more indirectly, in the rest of the Buckman siblings, who finally begin to own up to their shortcomings as parents, and as people just trying to get along.
Realizing they all have to help themselves before they can truly help their children, Helen and Gil and Susan and the rest start facing their fears head on, each small act of emotional bravery helping to pull them out of the mess they were wallowing in. Admittedly, a shotgun wedding between two clueless teenagers is far from ideal, but it serves as a strong example that sometimes imperfect ideas can become workable solutions.
As adults, we’re burdened with a fear of repeating the past, as well as an anxiety about the future, both of which can be paralyzing. When we’re young, our frame of reference is smaller, and the future is more exciting than daunting, so we’re far more willing to dive into our lives without the hindrance of preconception. We get lost in all of the analysis and over-analysis and introspection and worry, and we have so much wrapped up in the idea of leading a “successful” life, that we tend to miss the fact that sometimes things are what they are and exactly what they need to be.
Parents, as a rule, want to give their kids whatever they want, to give them the gifts and wisdom that will allow them to lead peerlessly wonderful lives. Often, though, we end up burdening them (and ourselves) with all our good intentions. We try to guide our children down the “right” path instead of letting them be who and what they’re going to be, especially if they’re going to turn out anything like us. Everyone has their own insecurities, which even the idea of parenthood tends to exacerbate a million fold, and this self-loathing (mild or otherwise) blinds us to the fact that all we can do is our best—and that our best is good enough. We have to be good to ourselves before we can be good to anyone else, and that means giving ourselves a break. Everyone deserves to be happy, even us, as adults and as parents, and part of that happiness comes from learning to let go of our fears of failure and simply accepting that life is a rollercoaster, not a merry-go-round, as Grandma would say. Our children will find happiness in their own time and on their own terms and all we can do is give them a lantern, or a Tod, to help light the way. The path is up to them.
Brianna Ashby is the surprisingly well-rested mother of a nearly three year old who, since her daughter’s birth, has finally learned to stop worrying and love the bedlam.
BILL MURRAY WEEK: Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
I LOVE YOU, BUT YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT.
by Brianna Ashby
After seeing Moonrise Kingdom, my brother-in-law wrote to say that Suzy Bishop reminded him of the way he imagined me as a young lady. I was flattered that anyone would ever conceive of me as a possible part of Wes Anderson’s world—and thrilled by the idea that, as an adult, I’ve come to embody the sort of child that I always wished I had been. Unfortunately, I lacked the confidence and the sense of purpose that it takes to embrace your own particular weirdness: It took me years to recognize that the things that separated me from most of my peers were the things that defined who I was—and it took me even longer to believe that someday someone else would actually love me for those very same quirks.
And then it happened. I began to come into my own once I saw so much of myself mirrored in someone else, but at the same time, I wanted to keep it all a secret, afraid that somehow it would tarnish if it was left exposed. I finally felt that I had found someone I could build a world around. Together we collected old photographs and postcards—bits of other people’s histories—and tried to replicate them with grainy polaroids and love notes in loopy cursive that helped to inject a sense of nostalgia into the slowly budding narrative we were busy creating together because, to us, it felt like it had already been written years ago.
When Sam Shakusky meets Suzy Bishop in the summer of 1965, it is the reintroduction of two old souls, a continuation of a story that had begun long before. Their instant connection, the strength of their bond, and their resolve to be together against all odds defies their tender ages, but their courage and defiance in plotting an escape from the world belies the sort of innocent and untainted hope only a twelve year old could ever truly possess. Watching the film, I did see some of myself in Suzy, not as a young girl, but as a young woman who found hope for herself and for the future in the face of a young man. Moonrise Kingdom is a restorative film: unabashedly uplifting, and so very, very alive, breathing fresh air into our dusty old hearts and reminding us what it is like to love with the absolute conviction and utter abandon of the young.
I still have a shoebox full of crumbling sepia photographs that serve as the last vestiges of that formative relationship. Sometimes we need something tangible to jog our memories so we can revisit places and times that have long since gone by. We all primarily use the same means of storing our pasts, and the same tools for recollecting them, and in Moonrise, Wes Anderson ingeniously plays off of this intimate commonality, giving the film a recognizable context, making Sam and Suzy’s love story feel like our love story. Lingering shots of unruly sea grass and weathered lighthouses, threadbare braided rugs thrown over sandy hardwood floors and ancient bike paths read like snapshots from a family vacation; someone’s attempt to capture on film what it feels like when the salty breeze tosses your hair around while you squeeze your eyes shut and see the fiery specter of the sun behind your eyelids.
The brief image of Suzy, binoculars in hand, all white and coral against that impossibly blue sky, is stunning in both its beauty and its simplicity. You get the feeling that if you plucked any moment off of the screen, you would find yourself holding an old Polaroid, marveling at both the sudden pang of nostalgia and the masterful hand of the photographer. The graininess of the “film” and the mostly bleached color palette lend an undeniable home movie quality that instantly lures you in with its familiarity.
Anderson has once again obsessively and painstakingly created a gloriously detailed and immersive world—this time the fictitious coastal town of New Penzance, somewhere off the coast of New England. Having spent all of my childhood summers in coastal towns in the region, the affectionate portrayal of the tiny hamlet is especially striking, but not at all surprising considering the lengths that Anderson will often go to elevate the setting of a film into an integral character. (Rushmore Academy, The Tenenbaum House, The Belafonte…) We conjure the spirits of the places that have held us like we summon the distant specters of lips that we have once kissed, often recalling a sheet of peeling wallpaper or the feeling of a cold tile floor beneath our feet with more clarity than the touch of another. The settings of our firsts and lasts aren’t merely static backdrops, they live and breathe with us, holding fast to the parts of our lives we experienced within their bounds, even the places and people that we’d like to forget.
And it’s not particularly surprising that the people and places of New Penzance are exactly what Sam and Suzy would like to forget. It is abundantly clear to both of them that the adult exemplars they are meant to follow are, in reality, incredibly lonely people that seem to be irrevocably unhappy. What spirited, dreamy, love-struck child wants to believe that they are destined to a life of bludgeoning mediocrity? That they will never be able to flourish and grow and build? Suzy’s parents, Walt and Laura Bishop, are shining examples of what happens when you close yourself off to wonder and surprise, whimsy and adventure, and, most damaging of all, love. Their marriage is stagnant, their lives quiet, mundane and unrewarding.
The older we get, and the longer our relationships last, the more convoluted they often become—until one day we don’t even really remember what we are fighting for or about. Time continues to pass until we no longer recognize the people we’ve become, but have also forgotten who we ever were to begin with. The Bishops’ struggle and misguided efforts to understand their “troubled” daughter, and her reasons for running away, stem from this difficulty in recalling a time when they were bound together through desire instead of obligation. It is this overwhelming feeling of obligation that binds the adult characters together; the Bishops, Captain Sharp, and Scoutmaster Ward, all obliged and determined to protect Sam and Suzy from the same sad fates that have befallen them at the hands of love. When this motley crew of lonely hearts bands together to find the preteen darlings and rescue them from themselves, it becomes painfully obvious who really needs the saving.
With all of the adults in their lives mired in denial and bogged down by rules and regulations and logistics and responsibilities, it is no wonder that Sam and Suzy, two misfits longing for freedom and acceptance, find the perfect escape in each other. The scenes of Suzy reading aloud from her favorite fantasy stories while Sam listening intently by her side are so charming and so wistful and so right; their casual intimacy is enviable in its purity, their youthful awkwardness making it all the more heart rending. (The flawless addition of a Francoise Hardy 45 doesn’t hurt either.)
Seeing Sam and Suzy on screen, I couldn’t help but think back to the times in my own life when I felt like I could throw everything overboard because all I needed to survive was a single other person, us against the world. It is a selfish mindset, but not necessarily a malicious one. Sometimes you have to leave behind the Sharps and the Bishops and the Wards of the world in order to avoid following in their tragic footsteps. Sometimes you have to take the lead so that they can follow your example.
Moonrise Kingdom ignites the spark of emotional wanderlust that lies dormant in so many of us, and shows us what we could do with even a fraction of our youthful lust for adventure. I want to remember what it was like to play fast and loose with my heart, even when it seems foolish, because so much of value can lie buried underneath words like ‘dangerous’ and ‘absurd’. I want to spend more time thinking about what brought my husband and I together instead of what we’re going to have for dinner tonight. I want to feel like I’ve found my place in the world and that it’s exactly where we stand, and every line on every map that does not outline this place is erased by an invisible hand. I want to save myself before I need saving. I want to flip through faded old photographs plucked from moments in my life and feel the sun on my face and the salt from the sea air settle on my skin. I want to find my own Moonrise Kingdom, a place where they will never find us, because maybe, just maybe, there’s still some lightning in me yet.
Brianna Ashby has taken off her shoes and one of her socks and…actually, I think she’s crying.
NICE GUYS FINISH LAST
by Brianna Ashby
My husband is a teacher at an all-girls private Catholic school. He also happens to be young and dashingly handsome (if I do say so myself). I’m no chemist, but even I can see that the combination of these two variables is potentially hazardous, even explosive. If I were prone to jealous rages and paranoid delusions, I would most likely insist that he find another line of work, or in the very least, transfer to the all-boys school across the street. Happily, I’m not prone to either of those things, and supple young flesh doesn’t interest my husband, who clearly prefers his ladies a bit older with dark circles under their eyes from getting up seven times a night with a young baby, and who haven’t had a haircut in well over six months. No, being surrounded by lithe, perky, schoolgirls with the propensity for hiking up their skirts well above the the modesty line isn’t even remotely tempting, especially when they’re batting the lashes of their doe eyes, ever-so-sweetly asking for a little bit of, ahem, extra help. Not at all. Although my mate is a saint, I can certainly understand how a lesser man could fall prey to these raptors disguised as plaid skirted ingenues.
From a young age, girls begin to recognize that they have a particular sort of power over the opposite sex, and most learn very quickly how to harness it. Before long, the boy chasing her around the playground trying to steal a kiss is completing her book report on “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” while she sits watching afternoon cartoons. The dynamic never changes, it simply matures as the players mature, and since girls tend to mature faster, their targets change, soon moving from their classmates to their teachers and so on and so forth. This is not to say that all men are saps, but there is empirical evidence to suggest that a large portion of men will go to great, even humiliating, lengths to get their hands on a pair of breasts. Sadly though, some men are saps, and there’s a certain breed of woman who can spot these unfortunate souls a mile away, knowing just how to manipulate them to insure that they get what they want. These women are commonly referred to as “total bitches”.
Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) is a total bitch. Quite often women who are strong, smart, ambitious, and successful are called bitches, because all of those things — especially in combination — are superlatively intimidating. Tracy is certainly all of those things, but that’s not why she’s a bitch. Rather, she is that certain breed of woman: her strength comes from an innate ability to recognize weakness and prey on it mercilessly. Sure, she is driven and hard-working, but the paths to her achievements are littered with the broken bodies of all the people she had to step on to get there, most notably her former teacher and lover Mr. Novotny.
Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik) is an ordinary guy with an ordinary home life and an ordinary job. Ordinary men of a certain age seem more prone to being hoodwinked by the Tracy Flicks of the world, who tell them that they’re not ordinary, they’re really something! You’re better than your wife and 2.5 children, they’re just holding you back! Write that novel you’ve always wanted to write! I believe in you! YOU ARE SPECIAL! Some people are easily convinced that their lives are monotonous and boring by people who purport to be exotic and interesting - the human equivalent of new car smell. All of Tracy’s admirable qualities — her drive, her intellect, her ambition, and her bubbly blonde personality — are intoxicating to poor Mr. Novotny, who soon finds himself convinced that he is in love with this girl, and she with him. Of course, he isn’t in love with her (and she is most definitely not in love with him); he is in love with the idea of her. More often than not, when people claim to be in love with their partner in infidelity, it’s simply that they’ve become enamored with the idea of improving their own self-worth, and the person who “showed” them that they were worth anything at all becomes something of an idol.
Maybe I’m being too hard on Tracy. Tracy is lonely. Loneliness manifests itself in different ways. In Tracy’s case, it’s resulted in extreme overachievement and over involvement in every possible committee, group, and after school activity that Carver High has to offer. (An obvious choice for student body president, don’t you think?) The more she has to do, the less she has to think about the fact that she’s alienated all of her peers and literally ruined the life of the one person that cared enough to talk to her at all, and she’s left a hyper functional but emotionally stagnant android of a teenage girl. Like I said, loneliness manifests itself in different ways. Tracy the zealot, meet Linda Novotny, the damsel in distress.
After relieving Dave of his duties as husband, Linda (Delaney Driscoll) is rendered completely helpless, unable to open pickle jars or attend to minor plumbing problems. She needs a man. I get it, I do. Finding out that your spouse is not only screwing a teenager, but has justified it by proclaiming his love for the little slut, is soul crushing. Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) gets it too. Jim is a reasonable man with a reasonable dislike of Tracy Flick and a reasonable amount of sympathy for his best friend’s ex-wife. Jim also happens to suffer from the same problem that afflicted Dave. Jim is bored, and once Linda starts getting under his skin, he starts to notice. He’s no longer a three-time “Teacher of the Year” winner, suddenly he’s just a civics teacher that can’t seem to make anyone understand the difference between ethics and morals. He’s no longer happily married to his best friend Diane (Molly Hagan), instead, he’s a slave to her ovulation cycle and her demands to “fill her up” so she can have the child she always wanted. Jim McAllister is shuffling through his homogenous existence and, frankly, no one really gives a shit, at least not in a meaningful way. Enter Linda, poor, broken, newly divorced Linda. Linda and her plumbing problems and busted light bulbs. When Jim, who is not only reasonable but also a genuinely nice guy, begins offering his jar opening muscles and friendly ears, our desperate housewife realizes that she’s onto something. Linda can see through his willingness to be at her beck and call; it’s not just a nice guy being nice because he’s a nice guy, it’s a nice guy being nice because he desperately needs to be needed. Things go from bad to worse and the rest…well, you can imagine the rest.
I think what I’m trying to say is that what it really comes down to is need, right? We all need something. We all have space to fill. The difference is that some of us are far more eager than others to step in and help plug up the holes - not out of love or concern, or hell, even interest, but because it’s a distraction that helps keep us from staring too hard into our own dark spaces, our own loneliness, our own boredom. People cheat and abet cheaters because if anyone took the time to systematically catalog their lives, they would always find that something is missing. Does this something really ever matter? Sometimes it does. Sometimes it’s a huge, gaping something, an insurmountable loss or overwhelming setback. Most of the time, it’s really nothing.
It is baffling that people can’t seem to recognize what’s right in front of them, they just look ahead, straining to catch a glimpse of what bigger and better things would be afforded to them if only they could just shrug off the lives (and people) that are holding them back. Somewhere along the line, a stigma was attached to living a comfortable unassuming life, to being a successful teacher or a good student with a quiet home life and a small, but meaningful, sphere of influence. It’s bullshit. There is so much good that comes from normalcy and stability and such tremendous harm that comes from believing, even for a moment, that the grass really might be greener on the other side. People are not landscapes and climbing into someone else’s bed does not constitute a change of scenery. When you climb out, you’re still you. You’re still lonely Tracy Flick, overachiever extraordinaire or misguided Dave Novotny, convenience store clerk.
Brianna Ashby has never so much as cheated on a math test, so help her god. She tumbls here. Honestly.
Sight and Sound List #10: Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963)
WHO SAID WE WERE PUT ON THIS EARTH TO BE HAPPY?
by Brianna Ashby
If you were to crack open my skull and closely examine my brain, I believe that you would find its composition rather peculiar; every neural pathway an overgrown forested tunnel, the frontal lobe nothing but a sea of rusty filing cabinets, stuffed to the gills with piles of yellowing paper and crumpled photographs, the area responsible for mathematical understanding completely obscured by cobwebs and dust. If you did a little digging, you would probably soon unearth an armoire of vintage dresses, a hand-tooled leather saddle, a jar of sea glass, a half-eaten bowl of macaroni and cheese, a small black portfolio, and a pair of socks with holes in the toe. If you were intrepid enough to make your way through this rubbish, you would then reach a door that opens into a large room full of whirring machinations, and gizmos spewing ticker tape, and buzzing intercoms—all crowding around an impenetrable safe of somewhat diminutive proportions.
And if you somehow had it in you to crack open two skulls, I believe that you would find Guido Anselmi’s brain in a similar state of disarray.
It’s amazing what we collect and store and trap in our minds. And what’s more amazing is that any of it survives the constant crush of new information, without getting smashed to atoms. I guess that’s what the safe is for: to house the people and places and things that deserve our protection, the things that we couldn’t do without. Ironically, though, it is the things that we keep closest to the vest that demand to be shared. People with the drive to create, like Guido, even like me, often struggle between the desire to connect with others through their stories and the need to guard the intimate experiences that inspire them to want to make that connection in the first place. Yet, these personal composites that ultimately inform our creative endeavors are nearly impossible to translate into film, into words, or onto canvas, at least in any obvious way. An experience can be made relatable, but you cannot relate an experience, not really. No matter how dutifully a scene is recreated or eruditely a scent is described, it will simply never be as powerful to anyone else as it is to the person holding onto its memory. Abstraction and metaphor exist for a reason, after all, and few artists seem to know this better than Federico Fellini.
Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastrioanni) is a movie director with a problem: He has no movie to direct. Production is stalled on the science fiction epic that was to revitalize Guido’s career, because he has nothing concrete to film. No script, no cast, and no inspiration—nothing but a loose and dreamy patchwork of a narrative that only he seems to be able to understand.
His “director’s block” is mystifying to the actors and crew members tentatively tied to the project, who wrongly assume that he is merely behaving like an unstable prima donna, keeping the details of the film a secret, just for kicks. Unable or unwilling to admit to his creative drought, Guido does little to dispense with this particular notion, choosing to appear difficult and elusive rather than vulnerable. Unsurprisingly, he suffers the consequences.
Everyone has questions, but no one seems to have the answers.
When the choice is made to pursue art as a career, the choice is also made to embrace, or at the very least, accept, personal commodification. While not all art is necessarily born of deep passion, it is nevertheless inextricably tied to its creator. Every novel and film and painting that is intended for consumption by an audience contains a small but crucial piece of the artist, who must be willing to sell himself off, bit by bit, to sustain his creative impulses.
Losing oneself is a terrifying prospect, but often less so than the possibility that these offerings might be rejected, and so we play to the audience. The danger in composing something to please the congregation, though, lies in their expectation that there is always more to come, that they never be left hanging or dissatisfied. The pressure to produce and gratify thus chips away at the psychic fortifications of the artist as the demand for their thoughts, emotions, and memories slowly begins to empty all of their internal vaults. Feverishly creating to fulfill thousands of individual needs is exhausting, and attempting to do so under the watchful eye of the consumer is paralyzing. Guido Anselmi has crumbled under the weight of this intense scrutiny.
The mind of a person under incredible strain (in this case, Guido’s) is a cacophonous place, whirring and jumbled and deafening, and Fellini makes sure that we understand that quiet roar. As we follow Guido—the camera panning and shifting to a first person perspective, to a third person view, and back again—we are not only seeing the world as he sees it, but hearing the discord as well. Conversations (in three different languages) perpetually overlap as actresses and crew members and friends and strangers all talk over each other, barking questions, asking favors, never letting Guido get a word in edgewise. The aggressive layering of disjointed chatter with an oppressed and melancholy internal monologue is not merely an experimental device for capturing dialogue; it very accurately depicts the headspace of an individual in turmoil. And, with a personal life even more tumultuous than his professional one, Guido, at the continual mercy of the external influences constantly vying for his attention, soon retreats inward to an elaborate tableau of dreams, memories, and fantasies. A place where the only voice that matters is his own.
While I was not under pressure from investors and production companies, or even a particularly wide audience, many of the same issues dogging Guido were also nagging at me when I recently made the decision to delete my personal blog. When I started using it as a platform for my writing, I had a handful of followers and no real impetus to make it anything more than a place for me to occasionally empty my brain. It was cathartic. Very slowly more and more people began to acknowledge my posts, but I never bothered to censor them for emotional content; I wrote what I had to in order to purge my system, not to give the internet something to read, at least, not at first.
You have to have a touch of narcissism to choose a public platform in which to air your intimate grievances, so to say that I didn’t begin to seek the validation of my readership would be disingenuous. At the same time, I started feeling like I had to really start mining the depths for material so that I wouldn’t lose whatever cache I had gained—which is exactly when it stopped feeling like a release and started feeling like an obligation. I had already written in great depth about the most painful and most joyous experiences of my entire life, offering up some of my most guarded and/or profound memories for public appraisal, and for what?
The things that shape us and shake us and fill us up are white elephants; people can only empathize with a story once they’ve connected it to something in their own experience, and once that happens, the story, no matter how deeply personal, is no longer yours. I realized that if I continued to let go of all of my most precious moments, I would be empty. Without ability to summon the distant sound of my mother’s laugh, or the spray of mist from a boat on a lake, or the terror at having been caught shoplifting, I would be nothing.
In times of crisis, my natural reaction is often to disappear into a quiet corner of myself in an attempt to recreate a time and a place completely removed from whatever is troubling me, to find comfort in reverie, much like Guido. The complexity and richness of his subconscious life is very deliberately staged despite its esoteric qualities, and Fellini makes damn sure that its significance cannot be overlooked. Time and again we are taken back to Guido’s childhood, where we catch a glimpse of the surreal threads that fabricate distant memories of formative experiences, and begin to piece together his complicated relationships with both religion and sex—two of the main concepts he wishes to tackle in his film.
Although he does seek refuge in the comfort and innocence of childhood, Guido’s flashbacks are more meditations on aging than a mechanism for self- soothing. Guido is afraid of many things, but none are as terrifying as the thought that he is suffering from creative impotence, and that his inability to perform intellectually will manifest itself in other ways. He’s afraid of losing his virility, his relevance, his youth. Guido Anselmi does not want to grow old in any sense of the word. And who can blame him?
As someoneon the cusp of turning 30, I’ve spent more time ruminating on my age lately than I ever have in my life. If you’re of a mildly fatalistic disposition, every grey hair is cause for alarm. You begin to wonder if you’re too old to do the things that you used to do, if your spouse finds you as attractive as they did when you first met, if you still have it in you to create the things that you dreamed of creating when you were younger. At what point do we become nothing more than nostalgic old fools? Of course, my answer to feeling sorry for myself is generally to drink a little bit too much wine and browse the internet for Doc Martens while listening to a playlist of songs that made me weak in the knees as a teenager. So I guess my fear isn’t quite as deep-seated as that of our beleaguered director.
Not consoled by memory alone, Guido vacillates between lucid dreams and outright fantasies. In his dreams, he exists in a state of purgatory, haunted by the ghosts of his deceased parents, and, in fantasy, he is the sultan of a harem composed of all the women that he’s ever bedded. In his subconscious he’s childish and naïve, indecisive and unhinged; qualities that were once latent, now bubbling to the surface of Guido’s waking life.
Realizing that he has entirely blurred the line between reality and fantasy, Guido begins to come to terms with the fact that he has lost all semblance of objectivity, and because of this, that his film can never be made. All along, he has essentially been working on his cinematic autobiography, but it is a concept fraught with inherent problems: he can never see himself clearly enough to flesh himself out as a character, he cannot choose a female lead because his relationships with women are intrinsically fucked up, he cannot bring to life the formative childhood experiences that excuse who he is without being accused of gross sentimentality, and he can’t solve any of these problems because the external forces behind him are exerting so much pressure he can’t even think straight. Unable to separate himself from his creative failure, Guido decides that the only thing to be done is to take himself out of it all together, to dedicate himself to silence.
Seeking to mine an “honest” work of art from the context of your own life is an endeavor fraught with peril. To have both the willingness and the courage to put forth those parts of yourself that reside in the deepest recesses of your chest is perhaps rare enough, but to be able to do so without caving in to the pressure to turn those things into something both meaningful and palatable to a larger audience is a stunning achievement. There are innumerable obstacles that prevent us from translating who we are verbatim, most of which lie in our own minds. We have to accept ourselves and our circumstances before we can begin to tell our stories, and we have to sift through those stories and decide which of them tell just enough of the truth to be given away, so that we can keep the ones that we can’t live without safely tucked away in that impenetrable safe of somewhat diminutive proportions.
Brianna Ashby may have stopped emoting all over the internet, but she is still willing to share her drawings, which can be found here.
Reader’s Request Week: Cruel Intentions (1999)
LOVE IS A BATTLEFIELD
by Brianna Ashby
Pucker up, for heaven’s sake, there’s never been so much at stake.” – Placebo
A few days ago my father came for a visit. Whenever he pays me social calls, he likes to bring along boxes and crates and portfolios full of my belongings that he’s (rightfully) grown tired of storing, but can’t quite bring himself to throw away. The most recent delivery yielded five or six somewhat embarrassing charcoal self-portraits—immediately chucked in the bin—and a long, unwieldy cardboard box stuffed to the gills with all the posters I once had hanging in my teenage bedroom. I unfurled VanGogh and Dali prints, shook my head at an image of the sun and moon sandwiching a sickeningly cheesy inspirational quote, laughed out loud at the monstrous Dave Matthews Band poster that always engulfed any wall I thumb-tacked it to.
Rummaging through shreds of my past life, I always feel a little bit like someone going through the belongings of a girl long since deceased: Here lies Brianna Duggan. Her poor fledgling heart gave out when David Duchovny made a surprise appearance at a Third Eye Blind concert. In lieu of flowers, her family requests that mix tapes be sent to Freddie Prinze Jr. in her honor. But, though she may be gone, she hasn’t been entirely forgotten. Certain films and records from my formative years actually hold up surprisingly well against time, and keep me connected to the spirit of that strange and complicated, bell-bottoms and body-glitter wearing adolescent. Cruel Intentions, however, is not one of those films.
I know, it surprised me too.
It’s taken me a little while to put my finger on exactly what I found so unsatisfying about watching this movie now, through older eyes. If we were to discuss it academically, I would point to the dismal acting (I’m looking at you, Ryan Phillippe!), the preposterous sophistication of the characters, the overwrought dialogue, and the problematic adaptation of a novel about pre-revolutionary French aristocrats (Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons dangereuses) to a high school setting. But even in tandem, even within the context of 90s teen movies, none of these things strike me as important enough to consider actual disappointments.
It was only when I started comparing Cruel Intentions to its peers that the difference became glaringly obvious: of all of the movies of its kind, it was the only one that was almost entirely about sex.
When seventeen-year-old me sat in the movie theater, I was an awkward and self-conscious virgin whose greatest sexual escapade to date had been making out on someone’s couch after their parents had gone to sleep. High school Brianna was seduced by the idea of seduction, and found the sort of power wielded by Kathryn and Sebastian (Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillippe) almost aspirational. They were the nexus of that twisted little universe: intelligent, attractive, sophisticated—and as far as I was concerned, decidedly adult. Watching the same story unfold now, thirteen years later, I find myself put off by just about everything that had drawn me to the movie initially.
At nearly 30, I know too much.
When I first saw the film, unfortunately, I found both hapless Cecile (Selma Blair) and self-righteous Annette (Reese Witherspoon) all too easy to relate to. I was basically clueless when it came to intimate relationships and, in order to mask my jealousy and insecurities, I cast aspersions on my friskier classmates, adamant that I was waiting—which was a load of sanctimonious bullshit. The only thing I was “waiting” for was a devastatingly handsome 17-22 year old boy that was willing to have me. I was secretly in awe of those girls like Kathryn, the ones that my friends and I would call sluts in furtively passed notes. I wondered what they had that I didn’t. They seemed so confident and mysterious—study hall Lolitas that got drunk at school dances and gave hand jobs to the boys on the basketball team.
I spent four years trying to figure out why no one wanted anything from me. And within that particularly self-deprecating, hysterical, and claustrophobic teenage brain space, it begins to make sense that I would find a glimmer of hope in something as silly and ridiculous as Cruel Intentions. I mean, if the new headmaster’s frigid daughter could have her defenses shattered by a pillow-lipped sexually liberated rich boy, why couldn’t I?
The adolescent mind is fueled almost entirely by fantasies, daydreams, and lofty aspirations, which can be both a tremendous asset and an Achilles heel. The constant barrage of new and novel stimuli left me so malleable, that I had very little trouble convincing myself that cinematic sex in the friscalating dusklight was practically guaranteed. Of course, the trouble with setting out to fulfill a fantasy is that reality tends to begin almost exactly where our reverie ends. No single, glorious moment is endlessly sustainable. At some point we have to begin to ask, what now?
There is a psychic line that divides our lives into BS and AS (Before Sex and After Sex). Once you cross that line, it’s almost like an out-of-body experience: You can suddenly see, with great clarity, the person that you were hours, days, even years before that moment when your life took a turn toward the carnal—yet that you is now somehow barely recognizable, an acquaintance at best. (It’s worth noting that the phrase “sexual awakening” couldn’t possibly be more accurate.) Onscreen, I watched as both Cecile and Annette were transformed from girls (like me) into keen, confident, self-aware women under Sebastian’s libidinous tutelage, becoming more and more like Kathryn with every new touch. But what the film completely glosses over is the horrible discomfort that comes with suddenly being thrust into that different version of yourself, something I had to find out for myself the hard way.
When I lost my virginity a year later—without fanfare, but with a full measure of adolescent awkwardness—I wasn’t disappointed, but from that moment on, I considered myself much more of a realist. Which is not to say that I wasn’t still a romantic or still mostly naïve (because I was both of those things), but rather that I was forever dispelled of the notion that my sex life would be filled with mood lighting, flattering angles, nuanced whispers, and perfect soundtracks. From that very first night AS, I was clued in to the reality that sex is often a fumbling in the dark. Even great sex. And, though it takes a little while to actually come to terms with that reality, once you do you can start to figure out who you are as a brand new sexual being, and where this “new you” fits within the familiar context of your old life.
As if it weren’t enough to embark on a tumultuous journey of self-discovery, I was also being forced to understand at the very same time, little by little, that sex is a life force—and to recognize the power that I inherently yield. The one thing that Cruel Intentions did manage to get across, albeit ham-handedly, was the dichotomous nature of intimacy, and the lightness and darkness that lies within all of us. Sex is both tender and animalistic, an expression of love and a means of control, a way of connecting and a way of escaping, the yin and the yang, everything and nothing. Being young and emotionally careless, there were times that I wounded people because I simply couldn’t see, or refused to admit, that there could be consequences to giving my body and walling off my heart.
Sometimes fucking is just fucking, but even the most detached among us are rarely sociopathic. Even Kathryn’s come-and-get-it attitude was a disingenuous mask, because at root her most manipulative deeds were spurred by a bout of rather typical teenage hurt feelings. That’s the part that gets tricky: navigating between sex and love, separately and together. But if you’re at all like me, that’s the journey that really mattered.
As I got more comfortable with the idea that I was becoming a liberated, if more emotionally responsible adult, I learned how to be honest, both with myself and others. I learned that sex is a tool, not a weapon. I learned that I could be confident and shameless and greedy at the very same time I was being attentive and giving and grateful, that it was necessary to embrace both aspects of my personality. I learned that it can be heartbreaking to confuse love with lust, but that I refused to settle for one without the other. I learned that sex is quirky and weird and awesome. I learned that there are some things that it’s better to discover for yourself. You can’t believe everything that you see.
Brianna Ashby wishes there were more synonyms for the word sex.